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Friday, November 13, 2009
Jeff Francoeur | New York | OF
2009 Final Stats: .280/.309/.423
Sometimes, a change of scenery is all it takes. Francoeur, who had lived in the Atlanta area his entire life, never lived up to the promise he'd shown in bursts throughout his career, particularly when he hit .300/.336/.549 as a 21-year-old rookie in 2005.
He followed this up with two seasons of .276/.315/.446 baseball, both 100+ RBI seasons, but with poor peripherals—his 0.25 BB/K ratio in particular was problematic, despite his .80 contact rate. His power numbers sagged, thanks to an HR/FB rate that dropped from 13.2 percent to 7.8 percent over that time, and an XBH% that fell from 12.8 percent to 8.5 percent.
Then came 2008, when he did so poorly that the Braves sent him all the way back to Double-A to work on his swing, uniting him with his former hitting coach, manager Phillip Wellman, but Frenchy actually hit worse upon his return. He finished the year with a .239/.294/.359 line, including a scant 11 home runs and 71 RBIs. Those kind of numbers wouldn't be acceptable for a middle infielder, let alone a corner outfielder.
And so when he started 2009 in a similar vein, hitting .250/.282/.352, they shocked him by sending him to the Mets for the oft-concussed Ryan Church. Shaken, Francoeur found his hitting stroke in Citi Field. Despite a similar number of at-bats, he racked up a .311/.338/.498 line with the Mets, doubling his home runs from five to 10 and nearly doing so with his doubles, which rose from 12 to 20. His BB/K rate remained fairly steady (.26 with New York vs .24 with Atlanta) while his line drive rate jumped from 18 percent to 24 percent, and his HR/FB rate more than doubled from 4.7 percent to 10 percent.
Incredibly, he accomplished this despite tearing the collateral ligament in his left thumb while making a catch on Aug. 23, after which his line improved to .319/.342/.493 over the remaining 36 games. Francoeur underwent surgery on the thumb at the end of the season and is expected to be fine for spring training. Speculators wonder if that injury could diminish his power, but it didn't seem to hold him back much while it was torn; hard to see it hampering him when it's healed.
The Mets see Frenchy as a vital part of their future plans, and are reportedly looking to sign him to a three-year deal. He would be arbitration-eligible otherwise, with an expected free agency date of 2012. Are the Mets buying high on a 75-game sample? More importantly, what should fantasy owners do?
I wouldn't offer the Mets' excitement over Frenchy's resurgence as a reason to recommend Francoeur, but there have been some good signs of late. His poor plate discipline has held steady in the .25-.30 BB/K range, but 2009 saw him reverse a GB% that had been hovering in the 45 percent range the past three seasons; with the Mets, he lowered that to 34 percent, while bringing his LD% to a career-high 24 percent.
His subpar 2008 could have been due to a .274 BABIP, which continued in 2009 with a .276 BABIP in Atlanta before he jacked it up to .336 with the Mets. A more telling stat would be his lack of aggression in 2008—always a hacker on pitches inside the zone (80-plus percent for his career), he dipped to 76 percent in '08, probably because of coaching to tell him to take more pitches, even ones that look good.
Unfortunately, that's not Frenchy's M.O.—he's a free swinger, both inside and outside the zone. Always well above league average in making contact on pitches inside the zone, he's also gotten better at making contact with pitches the rest of the league would leave alone. While he only made contact with 45 percent of pitches outside the zone in 2005, he can now get wood on 66 percent of those same balls, a rate that exceeds the league average of 61%. In that same time, he's improved his overall contact skills from 72 percent to 82 percent.
He's a free swinger, but he also makes contact, which can keep him alive in counts and maybe even land a few bad balls fair. That's a good thing from a guy who doesn't know how to take a walk, and it's dropped his strikeout percentage from 23 percent to 16 percent since his rookie year. Not knowing a strike from a ball doesn't matter as much to Francoeur, since he can still get a bat on it, no matter what the ump thinks it will be.
That's not a lot to recommend a guy on, particularly one with a history of disappointing fantasy owners like me, and many of you, and coming off an injured thumb. There are better gambles to make, but don't forget that the kid's only 26 next year, so he could still regain a bit of his tarnished luster. And you may find that he's undervalued by other owners, making him a good late-round or low-bid gamble. It looks like he'll get ample chance to prove he's really arrived in New York, so you don't have to worry about a hasty hook from the manager, but he remains a guy with a marginal skill set and a moderately low ceiling for a corner outfielder.
Kyle Blanks | San Diego | 1B/OF
2009 Final Stats: .250/.355/.514
Blanks was Baseball America's choice for top Padres prospect in 2009, and it's easy to see why. He's a big fella (6'6", 280 lbs) who doesn't hit like one—yet.
A career .304/.393/.505 hitter in the minors, he has steadily improved his batting eye (rising from .51 BB/K to .62 in five seasons) and contact rate (rising from .70 to .82 in his last full minor-league season). Despite his size, he's not a pull hitter and hits well to all fields, an approach that has nonetheless resulted in 73 home runs and 93 2Bs in 1662 at-bats in the minors.
That's what makes scouts salivate over Blanks: he's got the tools to be a great power hitter, but hasn't started to try to swing for the fences. Power is something that hitters can develop as they get older (Blanks turned 23 this season), while strike zone judgment and contact skills are abilities that tend to plateau fairly quickly. Equally promising, he hasn't shown much of a platoon split in the minors, actually hitting a tad better (.914 OPS) against fellow righties than southpaws (.869 OPS).
After only a half season at Triple-A in 2009, Blanks got the call to the majors in mid-June and had some great moments, including a 10-game stretch to finish July when he hit .343/.465/.800, with five home runs but just nine RBIs, thanks to the Padres' moribund offense. That was but a taste of what Blanks could bring in the future, once he figures out major-league pitching (his contact rate slipped to 63% and his BB/K fell to .33 in his 148 at-bat debut).
He ended the season on a down note, as the Padres shut him down due to a torn plantar fascis tendon, or a more severe form of plantar fasciitis. This is not a serious condition and shouldn't affect him next year, so long as he stretches his feet better to avoid reinjuring it.
The question with Blanks isn't so much his makeup, as he did little to diminish the expectations around him, as it is where he'll play. He played first base almost exclusively in the minors, with a few games at outfield when they were ready to promote him. He's blocked at first base by Adrian Gonzalez, whose fate lies in the hands of new Padres GM Jed Hoyer. Hired at the end of October, Hoyer has announced his desire to build the club from within, and rumors about a swap of Gonzalez followed almost immediately.
Even if the Pads elect to keep Gonzalez, Blanks has played well enough in the outfield to merit a corner role there, most likely in left. Assuming they don't trade their current outfield talent or bring in any free agents, Blanks is expected to share time with Will Venable, Chase Headley and Tony Gwynn, Jr. Despite his fairly impressive 2009 season, Gwynn is probably the odd man out in that configuration, although Headley could move to third if San Diego trades Kouzmanoff.
For fantasy owners, Blanks has more value as a corner outfielder, though he's no slouch at first base, either. Regardless of where he plays, he should get nearly full-time at-bats, with that "nearly" qualifier removed if he impresses early. Obviously, his chances to maximize his playing time are improved with any trade of Gonzalez or any of the other outfield components, but Blanks is going to be in the field, no matter what. Hitting at PETCO will water his numbers down a bit, but Gonzalez hasn't suffered all that much, and Blanks' ability to use the entire field makes him an even better candidate to excel at baseball's least friendly hitting environment.
Keeper leagues should have him, leagues that count OBP should be especially watchful of him, and every owner should be ready to bid an extra buck or two. Don't go crazy, as he's still fairly green, but Blanks is an excellent long-term bet and a very good short-term one.
Scott Elbert | Los Angeles | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.6 K/9, 3.0 K/BB, 5.03 ERA
In 2004, the Dodgers made Scott Elbert their first pick, 17th overall in the first round, and ahead of current major-leaguers like Huston Street and J.P Howell, but he hasn't lived up to expectations yet. This has largely been due to shoulder surgeries that kept him off the mound for chunks of 2007 and 2008, though he hasn't been great in the bigs, either.
With a fastball in the mid-90s, a hard curve and a change that are all plus pitches, lefty Elbert could be a starter or reliever, and he's done a little bit of both so far. In the minors, mostly at Double-A, his 3.27 ERA, 1.29 WHIP are due to his 10.5 K/9 and 0.7 HR/9, but his 4.8 BB/9 have been problematic. He's shaved that rate as he's progressed; his 4.1 in 2009 (at Double-A and Triple-A) is his career best.
Elbert reached the majors in 2008, but pitched only briefly, and then spent 2009 racing to and from Chavez Ravine, with four call-ups that saw him pitch only 19.1 major-league innings, all in relief. In that time, he struck out 9.6 per 9, only walked 3.2 per 9, but gave up four home runs for a poor 1.8 HR/9 rate.
It's not surprising to see a guy struggle when he's had fewer than 35 innings of work at Triple-A. One of the concerns was his increased hit rate, which shot from 4.8 last year to 8.7 this year, undoubtedly the product of his attempt to keep the ball in the zone and his walks down.
Something else he needs to work on is his platoon splits. Elbert has controlled lefties well in his minor league career, with a .154 BAA and a 2.87 FIP. Righties, on the other hand, have tuned him up (relatively speaking) with a .216 BAA, but (more importantly) a 4.02 FIP. Lefties hit 51.5 percent ground balls against him (40 percent vs. righties), which has translated into righties hitting 13.6 percent line drives (10.5 percent vs. lefties).
That may not seem like much, but his 2009 numbers in the minors have showed that split widening, not shrinking. He held lefties to a .162 BAA and a 1.44 FIP, but righties hit .276 and his FIP was 3.88 against them. Here, too, lefties hit 57.5 GB% (43 percent vs. righties), and righties hit 20.6 percent line drives (12.5 percent vs. lefties).
These are correctable, particularly from a 24-year-old, but they may hint at his future: if those platoon splits continue to diverge, he's going to slot in as a reliever, possibly a lefty specialist, which is not what the Dodgers necessarily expected when they picked him so early.
Also, Los Angeles is currently shopping for a No. 1 starter on the market, which puts several young candidates ahead of him in the rotation: Kershaw, Billingsley and Kuroda will all be there in 2010, and all are much farther along than Elbert. Add a free-agent No. 1 to the mix, and that leaves just one rotation spot for Elbert.
He should compete for that spot in spring training, but I'm betting he's going to return to Triple-A for at least part of next season. He needs some polish, and his undetermined role means he's even less valuable for fantasy owners. His talent (and the Dodgers' ability to train young pitchers) means he's still someone to keep an eye on, but I'd expect that to be late 2010 or 2011 at the earliest. Don't draft him, but keep him on your watchlist, particularly if the Dodgers' staff struggles.
Next week, we'll talk about Jake Fox, Jordan Zimmerman, and Matt Latos. We'll follow that with a Brewers' fest of Corey Hart, Matt Gamel, and Ben Sheets. Chris Ianetta, Joe Blanton and Madison Bumgarner will come the week after, along with whomever else THTF readers want to hear about.
Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
Posted by Michael Street at 4:31am
John Danks | Chicago | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.7 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 3.77 ERA
John Danks had a true breakout season in 2008, knocking a full point off his xFIP, which led to two points off his ERA. He has good stuff despite a fastball which isn't overpowering, and had very good control in 2008, walking just 2.6 batters per game. He's also smart, allowing himself to be “mentored” by cagey veteran Mark Buehrle. Given the paucity of other top-tier talent on the White Sox entering 2009, he was clearly their most valuable asset in terms of price vs. performance. So, things looked dire indeed for Chicago when his ERA stood at 5.10 on June 10. He posted a 3.21 mark thereafter (virtually identical to his 2008 ERA), but his peripherals showed a weakening in 2009, as his xFIP was up to 4.65. Unlike Buehrle, he uses a big overhand curve sometimes, and—partly for this reason—his ability to prevent the running game is nowhere near as good as Buehrle's. We expect some improvement in peripherals, but the ERA was somewhat “lucky” in 2009, so don't look for much improvement there.
Gio Gonzalez | Oakland | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.9 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 5.75 ERA
This may be the cheapest you'll ever find a 10.0 K/9 starting pitcher entering his age-24 season. That's right, 24. It only seems like he's been around as long as Mike Gonzalez. In 2009, he was awful in two starts early, and demoted to Triple-A. He proceeded to destroy Triple-A hitters, reminding everyone why he was so highly regarded as a White Sox prospect. Then as a Phillies Prospect. Then—again—as a White Sox prospect. Then as an Oakland prospect... (you get the idea).
Anyway, upon his recall, his first five games (four starts) were even worse, as he allowed a .405/.463/.738 batting line against en route to a 10.31 ERA over these games. But this was July, not April, and the A's had had their delusions of competing in 2009 dispelled, so he was left in the rotation. Maybe he was shocked into effectiveness after absorbing 11 earned runs in a July 20 start against the Twins, but he was a significantly better pitcher after that, allowing a 4.40 ERA in 13 starts the rest of the season, and holding hitters to a .248/.342/.398 batting line. It's still not what you'd want from a starter long-term, but with the overwhelming strikeout totals, his xFIP was just 4.16 on the season, and that is something to build upon. There's little doubt that he had a hand in his ultra-high BABIP (.369!) and HR/FB (14 percent). But a lot of those “hittable” pitches were coming early in the year, when he had no confidence, and his stuff abandoned him (or did the egg come before the chicken?) With the A's subpar offense and his control problems, we wouldn't go gung-ho bidding on him, but he's on the short list of guys who could vault into preeminence with just a minor improvement in control.
Brandon Morrow | Seattle | SP
2009 Final Stats: 8.5 K/9, 1.8 K/BB, 4.64 ERA
From Wikipedia, “Morrow is an English word meaning 'the next day' (the morrow of the feast) or 'tomorrow'”. Seemingly, that's about as far ahead as the Mariners want to commit to planning for the big righty, as well. After his final start of the season, it was reported that, “Brandon Morrow tossed eight innings of one-hit shutout ball in a 7-0 win over the Athletics on Wednesday night.” And the conclusion drawn by the rotoworld.com analyst was, “Hopefully the former first-round pick will have a clear role headed into 2010.”
Morrow entered 2009 poised to be the full-time closer for the M's. He blew a couple saves early, and was officially pulled from the role on May 15. On May 18, manager Don Wakamatsu said, "I talked with Brandon today. We’re going to keep him in the bullpen but not in the closer role. We’re going to get him some innings and get him to where he feels like he can command the baseball." On June 10, he returned to a starting role, and was expected to get optioned to Tacoma. Instead, he struggled in the Seattle rotation for a month before his July 11 demotion. He was okay at Triple-A, and posted a 40 strikeouts, 23 walks and two homers in 55 innings. He was called up again on Sept. 12, and had a 2.66 ERA (with 18 strikeouts, 13 walks and one home run) in 23.2 innings over four starts. But with his final game of the season against the hapless A's being his only game score over 53 all year, don't be shocked if Morrow is a reliever on the morrow in Seattle. He's getting the winter off, and will be preparing for a role in the rotation. But at this point, it would take a major breakthrough for him to have much fantasy value in 2010. Perhaps an excellent Spring Training would auger such a breakthrough, but keep in mind that even Seattle's park and defense can't save him from his wildness.
Ryan Rowland-Smith | Seattle | SP
2009 Final Stats: 4.9 K/9, 1.9 K/BB, 3.74 ERA
We counted “RRS” among the best “hits” on the year-end review of “hits” and “misses”, and the reasons can't be repeated often enough... fantasy baseball is NOT real baseball. In real baseball, a “chuck and duck” pitcher like Rowland-Smith is a reasonable innings-eater for a team like Seattle. In fantasy, he has a chance to be a force in the WHIP category, while helping ERA some also. While you'll need to go elsewhere to find wins and strikeouts, a full-time SP with a sub-1.20 WHIP and a 4-ish ERA is always nice to have. And the fact that he should still be available in the later rounds (or for nearly minimal dollar values) is just gravy. Some may point to his .253 BBIP and suggest that it will rebound to .300. Why? He allows a lot of fly balls, which inherently have lower BABIP rates, and Seattle has assembled a suffocating outfield defense, which cuts that rate even more. Don't get into a bidding war, since you can probably get nearly as much utility from a top-notch non-closing reliever, but keep him in mind.
Carl Crawford | Tampa Bay | OF
2009 Final Stats: .305/.364/.452
With each increase in OBP being so much more important for someone who is such a threat to score, it can be argued that Crawford had his best season in 2009, topping his .315/.355/.466 rate stats from 2007. His 60 steals were a career high, as was his .366 OBP. The 16 times he was caught mitigate the impact somewhat, but don't expect Joe Maddon to stop giving him the “green light” anytime soon.
Stolen bases disproportionately valuable in fantasy baseball. As game-players, we can't afford to be “baseball purists”, and instead must figure out how to work with them. Most valuation systems start by assuming that a “replacement player” would get X stats in a category, and—as the adage about “get steals in the auction” implies—replacement level for steals is very nearly zero. Sure, one owner can get lucky and snag a Pedro Borbon when he's promoted, but banking on a guy like that appearing on your waiver wire is about as dicey as a bank extending bad mortgages. Better to lock up steals when they are available. Crunching the numbers for the past few seasons, “replacement value” for most positions indeed shows almost zero stolen bases (2.4 for outfielders) in AL-only leagues, and the stats-per-SD rate is about 10. If you figure that each Standard Deviation nets about $2.50 (based on a 70/30 hitter/pitcher allocation of auction money), Crawford's 60 SB were worth about $15 all by themselves.
But here's where SB are so tricky. For most players, the variance from year-to-year on steals is quite large. And higher variance is why fewer dollars are generally spent on pitching stats, so why would it be good advice to lock them up in the auction? The answer is that the top stolen base contributors do nothave higher variance in steals than in their other stats. Crawford (remember him?) is perhaps the best example, despite his jump from 25 stealsin 2008 to his lofty 2009 total. Crawford has now played seven full seasons (counting his injury-plagued 2008 as “full”), and has averaged 50 steals per year, with a standard deviation of 12. That's the equivalent of a 25-home run player having a standard deviation of 6 home runs perseason ... and about as reliable as you'll find.
So, for 2010, we think Crawford will generate between $10 and $13 in value from his steals alone (we don't think 60 again is likely), and we like the uptick in OBP without a huge BABIP increase (.346 vs. career BABIP of .332), and think he's likely to again generate something akin to $15 in non-SB value, making him a good bet to approach $30 in value again.
Jacoby Ellsbury | Boston | OF
2009 Final Stats: .302/.355/.415
It would be easy to focus on Ellsbury's similarities to Crawford, as both are exceptionally fast left-handed outfielders who have shown just enough power to make people expect a lot more of it. Ellsbury now has 129 steals in just over 1400 plate appearances, which is essentially two full seasons for a healthy leadoff hitter. At 70-for-82, his success rate has been significantly better than Crawford's, and he's two years younger (the great basestealers in history have all had their best SB seasons pre-27, though they tend to lose speed “gracefully,” by getting on base more and getting more chances to steal).
Because he is an historical anomaly, it's hard to discern what the future portends for Ellsbury's steals. Looking at Boston's top-10 SB seasons, Ellsbury has two of the top four, with the only others of recent vintage Otis Nixon's 42 in 1994 and Tommy Harper's 54 in 1973. In Fenway's high scoring environment, steals just aren't all that important. But stealing at an 85 percent rate helps a team, regardless of offensive environment (even after adding in the seven pickoffs, he was still successful 79 oercent of the time in 89 opportunities).
With speed like his, we don't think there's much reason to worry about him not stealing a ton of bases. The worry with Ellsbury is that his OBP isn't great (just .346 vs. righties, with three of his 32 walks coming as IBBs), and advanced fielding stats suggest he's really killing Boston afield. So, there's some danger of one of two things happening with him, each of which would harm his fantasy value. Boston could replace him, trading him to a team in a pitcher's park which could “make better use of his speed” (depending on treatment of players departing for the NL, this could end up helping a fantasy team if he steals more); or he could end up batting deeper down in the order, which would reduce his plate appearances as well as his runs scored totals. Granted, these aren't huge concerns, and he should still be near the top of any AL draft list. I expect another gradual advance in his batting rate stats (if he stays in Boston), and another league-leading stolen base total, though 70 again would be a surprise.
Chone Figgins | Los Angeles? | 3B?
2009 Final Stats: .298/.395/.393
Figgins has played 274 games in the past two years, 259 of these have been at third base. While this seems to have had an agreeable effect on his play on the field, the lost versatility is no good for fantasy owners. Figgins had 62 steals in 2005, in just 259 steal opportunities, but was down to just 42 steals in 59 tries (with 11 pickoffs) in 313 SBO in 2009. Both his BABIP and OBP were career bests, as was his runs scored total of 114. The latter stat was a function of the best Angels offense in years, and a totally healthy season from Figgins.
I see this as a classic case of numerous indicators pointing to a big crash in 2010. First off, expecting more than 625 plate appareances from Figgins is optimistic, so more than 10 percent of his value evaporates. The Angels are unlikely to repeat their offensive heroics from 2009, or Figgins may be on a team with a less-potent offense, eating into his run (and RBI) totals. His speed shows numerous indicators of being in steep decline. The quick take is that he's had 34-plus steals for six straight seasons, up to 42 in 2009. But there are enough yellow flags that counting on even 30 steals is optimistic for 2010, as would be counting on his rate stats to stay at such high levels.
Nolan Reimold | Baltimore | OF
2009 Final Stats: .279/.365/.466
One of the first Waiver Wire subjects, back on May 15, we predicted Reimold would “match Luke Scott's production, with a few steals thrown in.” Since Luke Scott is a career .264/.350/.495 hitter, Reimold was very comparably valuable in terms of rate stats, and stole eight bases in 411 plate appearances, making that prediction seem spot-on. The next question concerns what the to-be-26-year-old Reimold will do in 2010.
Opinions vary on this, with the Bill James Handbook suggests a .292/.373/.524 season (29 home runs, 84 RBIs), while Heater's “True Talent” feature thinks he'll hit just .254, with only enough at-bats to hit 18 home runs and drive in 61 runs. BJHB has a long track record of over-projecting hitters, especially if they've had a great Triple-A experience the previous year (even if it's too small of a sample size to have much statistical significance); but the “True Talent” projection is unduly pessimistic. With a contact rate that should approach 80 percent, a respectable walk rate, and decent athletic ability, there seems every indication that Reimold will be able to keep his average around .280 while pushing his slugging closer to .500 as he matures. A .280-25-80-10 season from him is possible, and (with a healthy Adam Jones) would give the O's a great outfield trio with the potential to mature into the game's best (with a good No. 4 in Pie as well)!
Posted by Rob McQuown at 4:07am
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